No hot summer day, not even Virginia’s notorious ‘dog days’ of August, was ever able to coerce my grandpa into wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Long-sleeved shirts were a trademark of his, as was his ever-present hat and that little half-smile that he held in reserve for those rare moments when something was particularly hilarious. Pa’s choice of apparel fit perfectly with his overall tendency toward understatement, especially regarding personal issues. Concealing things he thought didn’t need to be exposed was a characteristic that extended to every part of his life.
Not the Usual Kind of Picture ~
One of the very few physical things I inherited from Pa, who was in every practical way a father to me in my early years, was a photograph. It wasn’t one of those staged pictures of a guy you often see from that era. He wasn’t standing there rigid as a board and staring off into space with a deadpan, half-angry look, like his wife had tricked him into wearing his “funeral suit,” and discovering too late that nobody had really died.
My picture was encased in a black wooden frame about 24 inches long and 10 inches high — the biggest, longest photograph I had ever seen as a kid. The 387th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army was arranged on a set of bleachers. They were standing at attention, shoulder to shoulder, and looking straight ahead so everyone’s face would be visible to the camera. Their role as defenders of America was officially memorialized on that day, September 5, 1918, and my grandfather was on the second row. One click of a shutter captured that brief moment of his life nearly a hundred years ago, and now I have it. The sad thing is that I only have the memorial, not the memory. The photographic monument was passed along to me, but it was stripped of life and meaning, because I was not allowed to inherit the stories that went with it.
Something’s Missing ~
That picture was taken near the end of World War I, a global conflict that saw the death of some 9,000,000 combatants and 7,000,000 civilians. Sadly, what little I learned about “The Great War” came from the impersonal chronicles in history books, not from that soldier who stood with the rest of the 387th Infantry that September afternoon. Like all monuments, my picture offered no personal commentary. It was just a lifeless symbol with no capacity to add anything or transmit anything beyond its presence.
Monuments need more than that — they need memories. Monuments are dead things. Memories live. Monuments don’t fight wars or experience life. People with memories do. Monuments don’t think. They can’t feel, and they’re powerless to move on their own. Monuments neither love nor hate. Monuments can only assume their position and wait until some living person comes along to explain them.
A Peculiar Command with a Memorable Lesson ~
In bringing His people into the Promised Land, God issued an unusual command. In the absence of digital imaging technology and electronic storage, God directed His people to engage in a procedure that had much greater potential impact. What He directed them to do was destined to be symbolic of an eternally significant event.
“Cross over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them… And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” Joshua 4:1-6 NKJV
The rocks they picked up were just rocks, different shapes and sizes, and maybe some variation in color, but nonetheless, just rocks. They weren’t polished rocks, or engraved rocks, or rocks containing precious metals or valuable gemstones. They were just plain old, nondescript ‘bottom of the river’ rocks that happened to be exposed because of God’s intervention resulting in the miraculous removal of the water that normally concealed their presence, an event, by the way, to which they contributed nothing.
We don’t know what any individual rock looked like or what the finished monument looked like when they were all stacked up. Their only significance was that they had been in the presence of a supernatural event. They didn’t observe anything, feel anything, or remember anything. They were just a lifeless part of the landscape, helpless to experience or explain anything about the astounding power of God. Monuments are like that.
God made His intention clear. He told His people to tell their children what those stones meant. The implication was that they were to bring them to that place, for that purpose. Those rocks alone explained nothing. Their silent sentinel could only prod their visitors to revisit that day, to watch again in their mind’s eye as the Jordan parted, to be amazed again at what God was doing, to remember the glory, and to retell the story. The rocks couldn’t remember, and none of them could tell the story. Without a “memory” to share, the rocks are no longer a “memorial.” They’re just a pile of rocks.
One can’t help but wonder what those rocks might have felt had they been granted emotions and memories. Very likely, their hearts would have been broken, because God’s people eventually stopped bringing their children. They stopped telling the stories and ceased to relive His power in their lives. And at that point, the rocks ceased to be the memorial that God intended and were once again reduced to being just a lifeless stack of stones.
If we strip Memorial Day of the memories each of us holds, then its monuments mean nothing. Our symbols have no voice of their own; and whether it’s a cross hanging around our neck, a statue in a park, or the picture of a loved one in a uniform, they are but mute reminders. If we stop telling the stories of those who died, and of those survivors in foxholes next to them whose lives were forever scarred, and if we fail to recall the pain of those whose wounded hearts would never heal, then Memorial Day symbols aren’t really memorials anymore. If we reduce this day to no more than another reason to grill hotdogs, then we’ve turned it into just another meaningless “pile of rocks”.
We must remember more than the pain and loss that this day represents. We must remember the love and the grace that God displayed through it all, and we must remember with more than our minds and hearts. If we don’t revive the stories with our mouths as well, then they die — and the power that He wanted to live on dies with them.
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to Tweet & Share from the pull quotes below. Each quote links directly to this article through Twitter.
“If we strip Memorial Day of the memories that each of us holds, then its monuments mean nothing. Our symbols have no voice of their own … They are but mute reminders.” @Gallagher’s Pen (Click here to Tweet)
“If we fail to recall the pain of those whose wounded hearts would never heal, then Memorial Day’s symbols aren’t really memorials anymore.” @Gallagher’s Pen (Click here to Tweet)
“If we reduce Memorial Day to no more than another reason to grill hotdogs, then we’ve turned it into just another meaningless “pile of rocks.” @Gallagher’s Pen (Click here to Tweet)
- “We must remember the love and the grace that God displayed through it all … with more than our minds and hearts. If we don’t revive the stories with our mouths as well, then they die — and the power He wanted to live on dies with them.” @Gallagher’s Pen (Click here to Tweet)
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© 2020 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
Ron, What a beautiful and timely reminder. May we never forget and never stop telling the story of the price Christ paid for our freedom.
I especially love this: “Monuments need more than that — they need memories. Monuments are dead things. Memories live. Monuments don’t fight wars or experience life. People with memories do.”
You have such a gift with words, my friend.
God bless you and yours!
I have been so blessed so often by having you in my list of friends. You are such an encourager, and I your comment leaves my both humbled and grateful. When I think of the story tellers that I have been blessed to get to know, your name is always near the top of my list. I have always loved your courage to speak out about the vital issues confronting us, but I love the heart that guides what you say even more. Thanks again for making my day brighter and for being one of those story tellers that will not let the memories die.
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